A trunk fish nibbles on a moon jellyfish over a stand of elkhorn coral in Cuba’s Isle of Youth.

In a pair of new books, on coral reefs and sperm whales, two impassioned ocean lovers offer contrasting visions of how to safeguard its splendors.

By Ashley Lefrak


“The ocean,” says David Guggenheim C’80, “was my first love.” It has been a complicated love: providing solace and forcing him to confront coral reefs so devastated as to be “reminiscent of WWII newsreels depicting Europe’s bombed out cities.” That pain-sharpened emotional connection not only has propelled him through decades of work in science, education, and policy, it also pulses through the pages of his new book, The Remarkable Reefs of Cuba: Hopeful Stories from the Ocean Doctor.

The Remarkable Reefs of Cuba:
Hopeful Stories from the
Ocean Doctor

By David Guggenheim C’80
Rowman & Littlefield, $27.95

Raised in land-locked Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, Guggenheim was an unlikely seafarer. But that changed when he convinced his skeptical parents to send him to a marine biology summer camp in the Florida Keys, where he was riveted by the world beneath the waves. “I marveled,” he writes, “at the towering jetties of coral around us, living mountains of corals upon corals, brown and mustard-colored rock-like structures, encrusted with brilliant red, violet, and orange coralline fans and branches, swaying in the warm, nourishing current.” There was something almost indescribably exuberant about a healthy reef, where a kaleidoscopic variety of “invertebrates, algae, and all manner of colorful corals” throbbed with “fish, crustaceans, and worms, leaving no space uninhabited or undefended.” Guggenheim was then bitten hard and repeatedly by a “pissed off” little damselfish protecting its territory.

Defending coral reefs, he came to understand, is a noble cause. But a challenging one. Compared with whales or dolphins or sea turtles, there’s a bit of a marketing problem: What is coral, actually? Guggenheim clearly communicates this and other curiosities. Addressing a general audience with short passages bearing titles like, “Animal, Mineral, or Vegetable?” he explains what coral is (all of the above) in prose so thoroughly saturated with his own wonder that a reader can’t help but absorb a good helping of reverence while digesting the facts. We learn how the well-being of a sprawling ocean food chain rests largely upon the shoulders of a tiny free-swimming snail, less than a centimeter in length. We grow acquainted with a sea urchin so sharp and slow-moving that an untrained eye might mistake it for a rock, but upon which coral depends to create a white halo of algae-free sand upon which to settle. These sections—as accessible as they are fascinating—could be read aloud to an inquisitive child, or as part of a science podcast.

With similar lucidity, though tinged with sorrow, Guggenheim describes how a wide variety of human activities have proved catastrophic for reefs. Miracle-Gro on lawns, sewage discharge, coastal development, fertilizer-heavy farming, bacteria in cargo ship ballast water, and destructive fishing practices are just a few of the topics Guggenheim covers while illuminating what, exactly, is wiping out coral reefs. He also tells us why this mass destruction matters: not only are reefs the “font of life” for most marine creatures, they are also unsurpassed in their ability to protect shorelines—absorbing up to 97 percent of wave energy—an increasingly urgent job in an era of powerful storms and rising sea levels. They are a critical link in the global ocean ecosystem, sustaining not only fish humans are accustomed to eating but thousands of other life forms, many of which are thought to harbor medicinal potential. Losing corals, Guggenheim contends, represents an “annual loss of billions of dollars from the global economy and the end of a way of life for billions that depend on coral reef ecosystems.” 

The hope Guggenheim offers is Cuba, whose reefs are remarkably healthy. Through an unrepeatable mix of historical accident, idiosyncratic ocean currents, the government’s decision to codify “the right to a sound environment,” and the efforts of policy makers, scientists, and dedicated citizens, Cuban reefs are, Guggenheim declares, an “Eden” just 90 miles south of the devastated Florida Keys. Yet if the book’s title hints that Cuba might hold a conservation roadmap for the rest of the world, the text shows that its lessons are anything but simple. Consider the algae blooms, fed by fertilizer runoff, that smothered and compromised Cuba’s reefs in the 1970s and 1980s. When the collapse of the Soviet Union cut off the Castro regime’s fertilizer supply, offshore waters quickly cleared and the coral bounced back—illustrating the benefits of organic farming practices. The downside: hunger. Food shortages plagued Cuba for many years and today the nation still imports most of its food. The devastating impact of farming with synthetic fertilizers is the obvious take-home, but how to transition the giant agricultural business to healthier farming practices—in ways that don’t dramatically sacrifice yields—remains a thorny challenge.

Other moves, such as Cuba’s 2002 decision to ban bottom trawling, the destructive practice of dragging nets across the seabed, seem well within the capacity of policy makers, but have yet to be repeated in Mexico or the US. Cuba’s willingness to regulate in favor of the reefs also has extended to creating Marine Protected Areas where fishing is regulated. Guggenheim suggests that even in the absence of sufficient enforcement, citizens, aware their livelihoods in fishing and tourism depend on the reefs, keep an eye on each other to ensure the waters remain healthy. As thriving reefs become increasingly rare worldwide, their value as tourist destinations has increased and Cubans—ever mindful to avoid the environmental degradation of nearby Cancún—are thinking carefully about the best ways to welcome the influx of interest and income without damaging the very treasures bringing people there.

In these sections of the book, Guggenheim is trying to describe many things—perhaps too many—to do them all justice: recount the past 30 years of Cuban history, discuss international scientific collaboration, tell amusing anecdotes about mishaps born of cultural differences during his travels, model for future scientists how to work with an international team, and share the details of conservation victories. Occasionally he flounders under the weight of just how much he is trying to pull off, leading him to the land of overbroad generalizations (is every Cuban he met truly “gentle, positive, and funny”?), and heartfelt but bromidic takeaways such as that “humility can work wonders to ensure trust.” The text also occasionally slows when certain anecdotes get a play-by-play retelling, or Guggenheim lets his high regard for collaborators veer into the realm of thank-you speeches. 

Yet these are minor drawbacks in a book that so richly illuminates the marine life that will rebound or not based on our actions in the coming years. What is there to do? Guggenheim tells readers to use their wallets and smartphones. Want to save reefs that sustain untold species of fish and protect the shoreline? Put a dollar figure on the carbon that will get sequestered when the mangroves bloom. Want to save whales that sequester prodigious quantities of carbon by living, breathing, and dying at sea? Put a dollar figure on them too, within a carbon exchange that reflects their value. Want to discourage bottom trawling? Ask questions about where fish come from before you buy. There is a certain irony in Guggenheim leaving us with an ultra-capitalist solution to replicate the successes of the most famously anti-capitalist country in the Western hemisphere. Yet while Guggenheim has long been a lover of the sea, and has written a book that shines with that passion, his hope for progress lies firmly rooted in financial instruments. Science and stories might help enlighten us, but when hope is hard to come by, and technocratic economics offers a way, Guggenheim will take it. And he thinks we should too.

A adult female sperm whale cares for newborns while other whales sleep in vertical orientations nearby.

Gaelin Rosenwaks C’00, marine scientist, photographer, and author of Sperm Whales: The Gentle Goliaths of the Ocean, sees things differently. “I would never put a dollar figure on my mother! Or my dog!” she says. She spent years researching dwindling bluefin tuna populations but eventually grew weary of attempts to quantify the losses of ocean life in financial terms. Through her company, Global Ocean Exploration, she takes another tack. As she puts it, “The science is the storytelling.” Yet loss is the unavoidable backdrop of any story about sperm whales, some 3 million of which were killed during the 20th century, peaking with the industrial-scale slaughters of the 1960s and 1970s.

Sperm Whales: The Gentle Goliaths of the Ocean
By Gaelin Rosenwaks C’00
Rizzoli, $50

Killing at this scale is hard to fathom after reading Carl Safina’s illuminating preface to Rosenwaks’s debut book. Sperm whales stick together in tight-knit matrilinear groups, a practice likely born of their need to dive deeper than a baby whale can manage. Safina calls it a “babysitter culture.” How else to balance the needs of working and caretaking when the dads have a habit of ditching, for most of the year, to roam about in cooler seas? 

Even the most basic facts about these creatures is mind boggling. They house finely tuned sonar echolocation systems in their heads, communicating via rhythmic patterns of clicks that announce their identities and perhaps other information that, for us, remains a mystery. They can measure 60 feet from tip to tail, weigh 100,000 pounds, and live over 70 years. But such informational tidbits aren’t really the point of this visually rich volume. The encounters between Rosenwaks and the whales are the point.

Rosenwaks tries again and again to describe this experience in her introduction, but words fail her. Phrases like “I was blown away” or “I could not believe” are the closest she can come to capturing her delight, awe, and surprise at the close contact. In one long encounter, Rosenwaks exchanges a lengthy eye-to-eye gaze with a female whale who twirls and naps in her presence, after which Rosenwaks backs away so as not to touch—only to be astonished when the whale attempts to reapproach her. “They interact in a way I have never experienced with any other wild animal either on land or in the ocean,” she reflects. It is akin to conversation: the curiosity goes both ways.

Rosenwaks’s photographs carry us one step closer to the whales than words seem able to do. The majestic mammals sally forth in a colorscape of saturated blues, subtle greens, and softly modulated grays—and rarely appear alone. Most often in small groupings of two to five, they play, nap, nurse, twirl, and occasionally make what appears to be meaningful eye contact with the photographer. Most captivating are several double-page spreads that simultaneously capture the scale and complexity of social interactions. We see mothers, aunts, and cousins napping or nursing or just swimming while juveniles frolic at the surface of the water. One can’t help but notice, with joy and fascination, the vibrant community life that is at play here.

What emerges most clearly is the whales’ preference for closeness. In one photo, two females make what is effectively a full-body layer cake to protect a younger one. Another simply depicts a grouping of tails; the frame need not extend to their entire bodies to convey just how closely the whales must be swimming. Does this tendency indicate simply a primal instinct to keep the young alive—or something we tend to consider more human: tenderness, care, or even love?    

To suggest that animals have intentions or emotions similar to ours is typically deprecated as bad science, suggesting lack of objectivity. But Rosenwaks isn’t so sure. Her entire project, after all, aims to show how these giant-brained, warm-blooded, fiercely loyal mammals care for one another. “It’s hard not to observe humanlike traits,” says Rosenwaks in an interview. “We can never know what they are thinking or feeling,” she carefully adds—yet can’t help characterizing them as playful, curious, and most provocatively, wise. “It pierces through you,” she marvels. “It’s like they knew more about me than I knew about myself.”

These are the remarks of a scientist grappling with the kinds of knowing that are possible. That each interaction is different, suggesting encounters with unique individuals, comes as no surprise to anyone who has ever had more than one dog, or child. Whether creatures more capable of revealing their individualities—and thus their similarities to us—are worthier of our protection than, say, coral polyps, is a matter of debate. But Rosenwaks is doing something quietly radical by creating work that raises questions like these. Her book suggests that a scientific practice that reflexively dismisses the kind of knowing exchanged in extended eye contact—knowledge that takes the form of feelings but resists numbers, or even words—closes the door on something essential. And to close this door comes at no small cost: it risks an unthinking brutalization of the environment and other creatures, one that not only causes harm but also diminishes our own humanity. The hope Rosenwaks offers is rooted in the spiritual, not economic, realm. If we can see whales not as a commodity, but part of a world we’re collectively bound to protect, we’ll all be better off, together.


Ashley Lefrak Nu’10 is a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Real Simple.

Share Button

    Related Posts

    The Making of Things
    Slow Burn
    COP28 and Counting

    Leave a Reply